Category Archives: Music et al

Only a Pawn In Their Game

Only a Pawn In Their Game

1963 status quo

The American summer of 1963 was typical in many ways. For some, that was fine. Schools closed. Summer vacation. Ice cream. Iced tea. Pools. Beaches. Tanning. Bikinis. Bulging muscles.

For others, typical was not fine. The status quo meant field work. Starvation. Mistreatment. Jim Crow terrorism. The denial of an education and the right to vote.

The struggle for civil rights continued and folk singer Bob Dylan often wrote songs about the downtrodden. His Times They Are a’Changin’ album had a plethora of such songs: “The Times They Are a’Changin’,” “Balled of Hollis Brown,” “With God on Our Side,” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”

Only a Pawn In Their Game

Dirty work

It would be difficult to pick the most powerful one among them, but it was in July 1963 that Dylan first sang “Only a Pawn in Their Game.” Writing about the June 12, 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers might be an obvious contemporary theme, but pointing out that the assassin was doing the work of the White Establishment, that the White Establishment also kept poor whites  poor, and that the White Establishment used the poor whites to do its dirty work? Such a realization is why the song remains so powerful.

As Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz said in a 2013 NPR interview:  “The whole point is, the killer is guilty, yes, but he’s not the person to blame, There’s rather a much larger system that’s out there, and that’s what the song is really about.”

To write any more about Dylan’s lyrics is superfluous. His own lyrics  say more than any essay:

Only a Pawn In Their Game

A bullet…

A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers’ blood
A finger fired the trigger to his name
A handle hid out in the dark
A hand set the spark
Two eyes took the aim
Behind a man’s brain
But he can’t be blamed
He’s only a pawn in their game
A South politician preaches to the poor white man
“You got more than the blacks, don’t complain.
You’re better than them, you been born with white skin,” they explain.
And the Negro’s name
Is used it is plain
For the politician’s gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game
The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid
And the marshals and cops get the same
But the poor white man’s used in the hands of them all like a tool
He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
’Bout the shape that he’s in
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game
From the poverty shacks, he looks from the cracks to the tracks
And the hoofbeats pound in his brain
And he’s taught how to walk in a pack
Shoot in the back
With his fist in a clinch
To hang and to lynch
To hide ’neath the hood
To kill with no pain
Like a dog on a chain
He ain’t got no name
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game.
Today, Medgar Evers was buried from the bullet he caught
They lowered him down as a king
But when the shadowy sun sets on the one
That fired the gun
He’ll see by his grave
On the stone that remains
Carved next to his name
His epitaph plain:
Only a pawn in their game
Copyright © 1963, 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991, 1996 by Special Rider Music

 

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James Royal Robbie Robertson

James Royal Robbie Robertson

Happy birthday
July 5, 1943
The Band
Woodstock alum
James Royal Robbie Robertson
Jaime Royal “Robbie” Robertson was born on July 5th in Toronto, Canada. His father from Toronto; his mother, of Mohawk descent, born and raised on the Six Nations Reservation. At an early age, Robbie begins learning guitar from relatives during his summer visits to the reservation. (photo & text from Robertson site)

A lucky few are born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Apparently, James Royal “Robbie”Robertson was born with a guitar in his hands.

James Royal Robbie Robertson

Early on before Dylan…

Like many (most?) lifelong rock musicians, Robbie Robertson began playing in local bands in his mid-teens. By the time he was 18 he, along with Levon HelmRick DankoRichard Manuel, and Garth Hudson) was a part of Ronnie Hawkins’s band, Hawkins and the Hawks.

In 1961, Robbie Robertson and his mates became the Canadian Squires and released “Uh Uh Uh” with “Leave Me Alone” on the B-side. Robertson is credited for writing both.

James Royal Robbie Robertson

Enter Dylan

1965 was a turning point in rock and roll. Around for a decade already, the nonetheless “new” genre of Rock split with some headed in a new direction.

Why?

Bob Dylan had decided to stop working on Maggie’s farm and go electric. For his band, Dylan recruited Robertson who was quickly followed by the rest of the Squires. They toured with Dylan and then near Dylan’s in Woodstock, NY.

Their pink house was at 56 Parnassus Lane in nearby West Saugerties, NY. They set up a recording studio in its basement and played innumerable hours working on their music together. Dylan frequently stopped by and his famous Basement Tapes came out of this time.

Dylan’s band became The Band and Music From Big Pink became their first album. Al Kooper, in his Rolling Stone magazine review of the album, wrote in Rolling Stone magazine in August 1968, “I have chosen my album for 1968. Music from Big Pink is an event and should be treated as one.”

James Royal Robbie Robertson

The Band

Rolling Stone magazine carried a lot of weight and the fact that the well-respected Al Kooper endorsed it so enthusiastically was a double-barrel boost.

Robbie Robertson, the person who the record credits with doing most of the Band’s composing, became a star along with the rest of the Band.

James Royal Robbie Robertson

Woodstock Music and Art Fair

If the reclusive Bob Dylan wasn’t available for Woodstock Ventures get together in Bethel, NY, then getting the newly anointed Band there was nearly as good.

There style differed from most other bands surrounding them that weekend in general and that Sunday in particular. It is easy to forget how oddly “unrock” their style of rock was.

In concert the Band and Robertson were as tight and proficient as any ever was. Those basement hours paid many dividends.

James Royal Robbie Robertson

Fame

In 1969, they released their second album, The Band. In 1970, Time magazine put Robertson and the Band on its front cover with the caption “The New Sound of Country Rock.”  1970 saw their third album, Stage Fright. Cahoots in 1971. Rock of Ages in 1972.

They toured and they partied. They partied and they toured.

James Royal Robbie Robertson

Last Waltz

By 1976, only eight years after the release of Big Pink, Robertson and the other members took a break. They billed it as the Last Waltz and threw a party filmed and recorded by filmmaker friend Martin Scorsese. A who’s who of friends and musicians participated, including Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan.

James Royal Robbie Robertson

Robbie Robertson

It has been  more than 40 years since the Band’s last waltz. The Band, always without Robertson, got together occasionally to record and tour.

Robertson continued to record as well as acting (eg. the 1980 Carny).

James Royal Robbie Robertson

Film scores

He has often contributed to film scores (Raging Bull, King of Comedy, Color of Money, Casino, Gangs of New York, Ladder 49, Shelter Island, The Wolf of Wall Street)

In November 2016, Robertson released his large memoir, Testimony.  (NYT review)

James Royal Robbie Robertson
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Remembering Alan Wilson

Remembering Alan WilsonRemembering Alan Wilson

Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson
July 4…Happy birthday

On my Museum tours at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, when people find out I was at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair they often ask, “Who was your favorite group?”

Remembering Alan Wilson

Favorite?

My answer is that “It depends.” At the time of the concert, the Who had just released Tommy  and their performance at Woodstock included nearly that entire rock opera. The Who ended a long night of amazing music that greeted a sunrise which introduced the Jefferson Airplane. I loved all.

Remembering Alan Wilson

Remembering Alan Wilson

Emerging favorites

Since I regularly listen to music from the festival, I now can hear and appreciate groups that at the time I didn’t notice as much.

Nowadays, my answer is Canned Heat: Bob Bear Hite rambling around the stage, Larry Mole Taylor on bass, Harvey Mandel just joining band on guitar, Adolfo de la Parra on drums, and Alan Blind Owl Wilson on guitar. A great line-up banging away with a great groove.

Remembering Alan Wilson

Massachusetts-born

Alan Wilson was born on July 4, 1943 in Arlington, Massachusetts. Early on he developed a love not just of music (jazz in particular), but how music worked.

Like some other white kids of the 50s and 60s, Wilson also discovered the blues. Society had long relegated the blues to the Jim Crow back roads of American society, whose arbitrary cultural mores considered it too rude and crude for “polite” society. The civil rights movement and the evolution of rhythm & blues into rock and roll exposed the blues to white youth open to new views.

More interesting is that some British youth, like Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Eric Burdon, had done the same thing and formed groups to play their discovery.

Remembering Alan Wilson

Blues

Not only did Alan Wilson develop a love of the blues, he began to develop relationships with blues legends as they came to Cambridge, Massachusetts where Wilson lived. Skip James (whose vocal style Wilson imitated) and Son House in particular.

Remembering Alan Wilson

John Fahey

Wilson also met John Fahey, a young white kid with an equal love of acoustic blues. Fahey convinced Wilson to  move to Los Angeles where Fahey was working on his master’s thesis. It was Fahey who lovingly gave Wilson the nickname “Blind Owl” because of Wilson’s extremely poor eyesight.

While in Los Angeles, Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson met Bob Hite. His love of blues recordings immediately bonded them. They would found Canned Heat, a name  from Tommy Johnson’s 1928 “Canned Heat Blues.” Where else?!

Remembering Alan Wilson

Festivals

Canned Heat played two of the most iconic festivals in American rock history: the Monterey International Pop Festival and the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. Their recording of “Goin’ to the Country” became part of Woodstock film’s soundtrack.

Remembering Alan Wilson

Love of Nature

Alan Wilson loved Nature, but Alan Wilson suffered from one of Nature’s worst illnesses: depression. Canned Heat was readying for a fall 1970 European tour when he did not show up for the flight.

On September 3, they found Wilson dead in Bob Hite’s Topanga Canyon backyard where Alan lived in a tent. From the Wilson site: “We will never know what Alan Wilson was thinking that night, as he unrolled his sleeping bag and looked up at the stars one last time. What we do know is that he was a talented musician and musicologist who promoted the revival of early Delta blues and left his own permanent mark on the blues and the music of the late 1960s. …We hope that this web site is a fitting tribute to his life.”

Wilson was 27 and sadly became part of what now we refer to as the 27 Club.


Remembering Alan Wilson

NYT article

 

Remembering Alan Wilson

Remembering Alan Wilson, Remembering Alan Wilson, Remembering Alan Wilson

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